Mayor of Spokane Proposes Mental Health Task Force: “We really need to focus on the collective mental health of our community”

Mayor Nadine Woodward plans to lead the formation of a regional mental health task force in 2022.

The task force would aim to identify gaps and weaknesses in mental health care and build regional consensus on Spokane’s needs – and approach state leaders for funding to help fill those voids.

“We really need to focus on the collective mental health of our community, especially during the pandemic,” Woodward told The Spokesman-Review.

Woodward imagines that this task force would include elected leaders from across Spokane County, but also people with experience in behavioral and mental health.

“It’s important to involve professionals and elected officials,” said Woodward.

The demand for mental health services has increased during the pandemic, and locally it has exposed gaps and existing components requiring additional support.

The challenges posed by the pandemic are expected to persist, according to the state’s health ministry. In its most recent forecast of the behavioral health impacts of the pandemic last month, the Department of Health described a confluence of factors that could strain people’s mental health as winter approaches. , including the uncertainty surrounding new variants of COVID-19 and the return to work in person.

The concept of a mental health task force was included in Woodward’s 2022 municipal budget proposal, although there is no specific line detailing its cost, and its exact structure has yet to be completed. been determined. The budget has yet to be approved by Spokane City Council, which is expected to vote on it in December.

The new regional task force would not be the first time that local health care leaders have come together to address behavioral and mental health needs.

Behavioral health was a component of the region’s initial multifaceted response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a topic task force formed and led from the county’s emergency coordination center.

But this working group mainly focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and its immediate impacts on access to mental and behavioral health treatments.

For example, as many providers have switched to telehealth or reduced in-person hours during the early stages of the pandemic, digital access has become essential. The task force worked to secure a donation of $ 63,000 from the Spokane Teachers Credit Union to provide smartphones and one year of free service to clients of organizations such as Frontier Behavioral Health, CHAS Health, Excelsior, and Inland Northwest Behavioral Health. .

The new regional task force envisioned by Woodward could have a broader scope but build on the work and relationships forged between suppliers and local leaders through the COVID-19 task force.

“I feel like it galvanized everyone because it put in place a regular process of not just what people were seeing their patients going through – whether it was drug addiction, domestic violence or mental health issues – it was an ongoing and regular dialogue, ”said Dan Barth, task force leader and business manager at Inland Northwest Behavioral Health.

Woodward expects the opportunities for improvement in the behavioral health care system to be plentiful.

Woodward recalls learning – and being surprised – that there is no approved facility to provide overnight inpatient treatment for a young child suffering from a severe mental health crisis in Spokane.

Inland Northwest Behavioral Health opened a similar unit for adolescents facing mental health emergencies last year, but that only takes patients as young as 13 years old. is looking to expand its services to include younger patients.

“Anytime our leaders, especially our local leaders, look to create more resources for our community for the mentally ill, this is very important, and we will support that 100% and see how we get to the table and help “said Rlynn Wickel, CEO of Inland Northwest Behavioral Health, a private psychiatric hospital in Spokane operated by United Health Services.

Wickel said COVID-19 has impacted the mental health of the community as it has damaged people financially and limited access to health care, including behavioral health treatments. The effects are particularly apparent in children, many of whom were isolated at home while schools were online, according to Wickel.

During this time, some resources were more difficult to find. Inland Northwest Behavioral Health hopes to increase the number of its beds, but its efforts have been hampered in part by the shortage of nurses felt across the state.

“We are all competing to try to use these resources, and when there aren’t enough of them, it limits access to health care for inpatients, and mental health is in the middle of it all.” , Wickel said.

There is also a need for more mid-level treatment options, Wickel said, and the hospital is responding by expanding its intensive outpatient programs.

Staffing issues and the need for more treatment options predate the pandemic. For youth mental health treatment, the demand for services far exceeds the number of clinicians and resources available to children and adolescents in the state.

Locally, many outpatient treatment programs have had long wait lists throughout the pandemic, meaning a patient may not have a reduction program to turn to if they have. been hospitalized.

Leaders and advocates of behavioral health organizations have welcomed Woodward’s calls for collaboration.

Chauntelle Lieske took on the role of Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Spokane this summer. Volunteers at the organization, who have had experience with mental health issues directly or through family members, describe a “disjointed system,” Lieske said.

“It’s such a huge system and it touches so many different areas that it seems like a task force would be a good idea to bring people to the table,” Lieske said.

The Spokane Regional Health District does not directly offer mental health programs, but does serve people who need behavioral health care, according to spokesperson Kelli Hawkins.

“We welcome any effort to help our community address mental health issues, which as we know, in turn improves the overall health of our community,” said Hawkins. “Our goal is to promote healthy lifestyles, as well as to detect, prevent and respond to disease. “

Journalist for spokesperson Arielle Dreher contributed to this story.

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